Voices have always lived inside me, so much so that I can't recall a time when my head was ever clear of chatter. And when I dreamed it was never of myself or life as I knew it, but of enthralling new worlds filled with grand adventures and characters I grew to love so much that when I awoke I was always sad to part with them.
I thought this was what it was like in everyone's head, and it should come as no surprise I was also a voracious reader, devouring books within a day if not mere hours.
You'd think writing would have come to me immediately, but in fact it was drawing that I fell into first, and it wasn't until I was assigned the task of writing a novella when I was eleven that the light bulb went off in my head that I realized: this is what I am meant to do.
The voices swelled within me immediately, thereafter, and what began as soft whispers grew to a clamor so intense, for the next eight years I spiraled into a manic phase of writing in an effort to purge the noise. Between the ages of 11-19 I wrote every single day, without fail, and completed more first drafts than I can possibly count, with the stories starting at novella lengths of 16-30,000 words and growing over the years to a staggering 150k!
Thankfully, they've settled over the years and I've found a much more sustainable equilibrium, but my god those early years - though frantic - were definitely magical.
When I speak about my foray into discovering my passion, most people tell me how lucky I am to have discovered it so young - to have had that clarity of self and purpose; and on that point, I do agree. It's nice to have known who I am and the path I was meant for, even if it took me a long time to truly embrace it without shame or hesitation.
Artists are often told our craft is not a viable career, and it's usually not taken seriously until we've achieved some measure of recognition (in my case: being formally published). Without that important distinction, you're often viewed as a hobbyist doing nothing more than killing time. Once I learned to stop caring about the opinions of others (family and close friends included) I launched myself fearlessly towards my dreams, and never looked back.
Nearly five years ago I landed my rockstar agent, Jim McCarthy - my second agent after ending a disappointing relationship with my first (which I'll cover more in another post!). And even though he's one of the top agents in the industry, the path to traditional publishing is fraught with hurdles - more so when you're a BIPOC creative telling stories that don't align with the het white abled-bodied lens.
Having grown up spoon-fed whitewashed media from infancy, fantasy is where I always felt safest to explore myself and worlds that exemplified my identity and though there has been a cry for diversity and representation, the needle hasn't moved as much as we'd hope, and so despite every effort of my incredible agent, we've watched two strong books die on submission/acquisition, with what might be a third well on the way.
In between those crushing blows, I did happen to sell one book to a small imprint but seeing just how much work went into traditional publishing vs the fiscal payout really got me to thinking: Who really benefits most from trad publishing?
We've all heard about the stellar six-figure deal announcements and dreamt with starry eyes that one day that would be us - but here's the unvarnished truth: authors don't get paid nearly as much as you think we do.
Allow me to explain.
The majority of authors will get offered an advance, and that advance can be as much as six-figures -- eight, if you're literary Goddess, Leigh Bardugo (yay!) or as little as a couple thousand for the majority of us, (and in some cases you may get no advance at all!)
What is an advance?
It's basically a signing bonus paid against future royalty earnings before the book is published, which means if you want to see another dime in future royalty payments - every cent of that advance must be earned back in sales. Otherwise, that might be the only money you ever get for that book.
What most don't realize is that advances are often split into as few as 3 or as many as 5 payments at different intervals (often 1: signing the contract, 2: completion of the first round of edits and 3: the final turnover of the book). On top of that, your agent gets 15% for their hard-earned commission, having negotiated your contract to ensure you're getting the best deal possible. Side note: NEVER sign a publishing contract without having it vetted by an agent or at the very least, a lawyer who specializes in publishing!
Well if the book earn outs its advance, surely that's where the money must start pouring in, right?
Hah! You'd think but the truth is standard rights percentages for authors are quite low. Averaging 10% for hardcovery, 7.5% for paperback, and a slightly more favorable 25% for ebook and audiobook.
What really put this into perspective for me was an incredible calculating tool, WHEN DO I EARN OUT, developed by Hana Lee. It was a sobering realization as I played with this calculator to not only see how many books must sell, but also HOW MUCH MORE publishers make per copy sold vs the author.
For example, let's take the numbers on my debut for STILETTO SISTERHOOD according to my Amazon author dashboard . Thus far, as of publication on April 12, 2022, I have sold a grand total of: 637 paperback copies (unfortunately I had no way to know what sales for kindle or audio so for the purpose of this exercise, we'll look to paperback stats only.
Based on that, now let's say I got an advance of $5000 CAD/$3700 USD (roughly) with a royalty percentage of 7.5% per book and a cover price of $17.99 USD - here is what my earnout looks like:
I make $1.35 per paperback copy sold, and would have to sell;
2,742 paperback copies to earn out the advance of $3700. Of those same number of copies sold, the publisher will earn $24,666.67 in gross revenue.
When I tell you my jaw hit the floor.
If I somehow manage to write a book a year, while still working full time to survive because ... well, adulting ... that book spends a year on submission to die or it sells for anywhere from $2000- $25000 USD, I'll be receiving minimal payments in bit size installments, and then pennies on the dollar for every copy sold post earn out.
This is not a realistic way to make a living as an author. If I want writing to be my career -- this isn't the way to achieve that dream, but the stigma of self-publishing was a difficult one for me to shake. This deep-seated belief that somehow I was admitting failure by opting to expand into a hybrid career of traditional and independent publishing. At least until I started digging into how common it actually is, and that more and more authors are aligning with this path for many if not all of the same reasons I am.
I'm tired of publishing gatekeeping, I'm tired of great books (not only mine) dying on the acquisition table and/or hearing: we already have our token *insert ethnicity/identity* author, or we're not sure where this will fit in the market, or I can't connect with the voice, etc.
I'm tired of a system that offers authors little to no support but asks that we cut open our veins and pour our heart and soul into ensuring our mid-list books somehow many a dent in a machine that isn't designed to help us whatsoever, from lack of marketing or promotional assistance to a flawed advance and royalty percentage structure that keeps publishers holding the purse strings and authors from truly thriving.
That's not to say I plan to abandon traditional publishing entirely - there are definitely many pros connected to that path, but it's time I start thinking beyond the limited scope of trad only and cast a wider net.
So my goal is this: continue to work on new books that I think are fit for the traditional market with my agent, and should those books die on submission or for any books that I want to write that I feel are more niche/books that I want to retain more creative freedom and control -- then I will switch gears over to self-publishing, this way, whichever way the wheel turns, I can keep it spinning rather than having it stall, and slowly crank to a restart.
Any future advances from traditional publishing can be funneled into seed money for my independent projects, and then, my hope is over time as I build a strong backlist, eventually I can quit corporate and then dive into what has been my lifelong pursuit of writing full time.
It won't happen overnight, and it'll take a lot of blood, sweat and tears to get there, but at this point - what have I got to lose?
For those who are considering a similar path, I'll share everything I'm learning/discovering in a series of blog posts over the next year, highlighting any tips and tricks I've developed along the way, as well as the mistakes made so hopefully you don't have to!
If there are any thoughts or questions you'd like me to cover, leave them below in the comments and I'll be sure to work them into the series/future posts.